Pic: Oscar Dominguez/Alamy

Pic: Oscar Dominguez/Alamy

Spoon-billed Sandpiper satellite tracking

In 2013, top German optics brand Leica teamed up with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) to support their ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’ project. As well as financial help, Leica provides important optical equipment used to locate the nest sites of spoon-billed sandpipers (affectionately called spoonies) and record their behaviour.

WWT’s Head of Conservation Action, Dr. Baz Hughes, updates Bird Watching on the project: It’s been an extraordinary year of discoveries for those of us lucky enough to be part of the ground-breaking spoon-billed sandpiper tracking activities.

The story starts on the Tiaozini mudflats in Jiangsu province in China. In October 2016, working with our conservation partners and Nanjing Normal University, three wild adult spoonies were fitted with the world’s smallest satellite tags, each costing £3,000 and weighing less than two grams. They were also fitted with engraved yellow leg flags from which they take their names: ET, HU and CT.

Spoon-billed-sandpiper_1_preview.jpg

A population in decline

This Critically Endangered species has seen a dramatic drop in numbers in recent decades, the latest estimate putting the breeding population in 2014 at between 210 and 228 pairs. They have probably never been a common species, with only 2,700-2,800 pairs ever recorded in the 1970s.

In recent years, we’ve identified the biggest factor for causing the immediate short-term decline (2010-2016) - people on the wintering grounds in Bangladesh and Myanmar, catching the birds and selling them for food as part of their subsistence hunting. To tackle this issue, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force set up systems of alternative livelihoods and a recent analysis shows the population decline has slowed.

We know spoonies are threatened by the destruction of intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea through land claim, and by illegal hunting along the flyway, but with only sketchy information available it’s challenging to know where to focus our conservation efforts.

We simply don’t know where half of these birds winter. And we’ve only identified breeding sites for a quarter of them. Where are the rest breeding? It’s this incomplete knowledge of key staging, wintering and breeding sites, that is hampering conservation efforts.

By tracking the birds on their southward migration we hoped to shed new light on where they go, to know where to focus our efforts and what action is needed to protect them.

Where did ET go?

With bated breath last autumn, we awaited the first southward migration of our three tagged birds, ET, HU and CT. All three flew southwest and migrated along the southern coast of China.

But ET flew on, to the Bay of Mottama in Myanmar, the world’s most important wintering site for the species. Instead of following the coast, ET flew overland across Indochina, something we suspected might happen because it was the shortest route, but this was the first time we had real proof.

The tags were designed to fall off the birds after a few months and they all performed very well, providing data for more than four months in all cases; providing data on migration stopover sites and wintering areas. The three tagged birds all ended up wintering in different locations; HU and CT in South China. CT’s wintering spot was a new discovery, previously unknown as a location for spoonies. 

But that was just the start….

The presence of the tagged birds at these sites has resulted in increased ground survey efforts and led to more spoonies being found.

This increased focus has identified new threats and work to remove them. In Fujian, ground surveys revealed extensive illegal mist netting in areas used by ET and CT. Chinese conservationists worked with local authorities to remove the mist nets.

Because tagging is only temporary, to build up a complete picture of the birds’ movements, we need to tag the birds at different stages of their annual migratory cycle. Therefore we tagged a further five birds, two in Jiangsu in China in April and three in Meinypil’gyno in the Russian north-east in June. These five birds have provided valuable info on migration stop over points between the Yellow Sea and the Russian north-east, and the identification of several areas of interest as possible unknown breeding sites for future investigation.

How well has the sandpiper project been supported?

Spoon-billed-sandpiper_2_preview.jpg

None of WWT’s contribution to this work would have been possible without the valuable support of Leica. Their significant funding contributions have directly helped with two key projects: the conservation breeding programme and headstarting programme.

As well as funding, Leica provides key optical equipment including the Leica X and V-Lux 4 cameras, the Ultravid 10x32 HD and 10x42 HD-Plus binoculars and APO-Televid 82W spotting scopes, used primarily for surveying large flocks of waders at distance on mud flats or at close range in and out of vegetation in Russia.

In China and Myanmar, the optical equipment is used for surveying birds to produce population estimates and read leg flags. In China, they are used for identifying good sites for catching birds to attach leg flags, satellite tags and monitor the birds’ positions in relation to catching apparatus, such as cannon nets.

In Russia, the equipment is used to survey birds as they arrive on the breeding grounds, watching the birds locate their nests, keeping an eye out for predators and observing the headstarted birds post-release to monitor their health and when they migrate. Foggy conditions are often prevalent at the start of the season and with the birds being more active at dusk, this equipment is perfect for light-gathering power.

The financial aid also directly contributes to the costs of maintaining our “ark” population of spoonies at WWT, set up because we really thought the species was going to become extinct.

We set up a captive population in 2011/2012 by importing eggs and chicks from Russia, and they bred for the first time in 2016. Two pairs of spoonies laid a total of seven eggs, with two chicks, one from each pair hatching. Unfortunately, both died within a six-day period and subsequent post mortems identified a calcium deficiency as the root cause of the problem. Despite having improved their diet and adjusted their light regime, the birds did not breed in 2017 either – as both of our breeding males died just before the breeding season. However, we have high hopes they will breed in 2018.

What about the headstarting project?

We did our first trial release in 2012, collecting eggs from the wild and rearing chicks in captivity, before releasing them when they could fly at around 21 days old.

In our first year, we released nine birds and total of 141 birds have been released to-date. This represents 20% of the natural productivity of the whole population of around 200 breeding pairs.

By rearing birds artificially, they’re not subject to the natural pressures of predation and weather. A spoonie on average only rears 0.6 chicks from a four-egg clutch (a fairly typical natural rate for an arctic/sub-arctic-breeding wader), whereas we can get it to three artificially.

We collect eggs we know will hatch within a five-day period, so we can complete a single release. The birds normally leave the aviaries within an hour and a half and are monitored until they migrate.

Spoon-billed sandpipers have an interesting breeding strategy. Females do most of the incubation but as soon as the eggs hatch, the females migrate, with the males leaving just before the chicks can fly. The chicks don’t rely on their parents to show them the way – they rely on ‘hard-wired’ behaviour to get them on the right migration route. This lack of reliance on adult birds is one reason why the headstarting programme was initiated.

We’ve had a total of 14 headstarted birds return to the breeding grounds, which is great news. In 2017 we had the first record of two headstarted birds (White U6 and White 0C) forming a pair. We now know they bred successfully and reared one chick (after their first clutch was taken for headstarting!). We’re about to run a survival analysis to see whether headstarted birds are surviving as well as their wild counterparts. Re-sighting rates are about the same as you would expect to see from wild birds, so this suggests they are.

As the spoonies are so iconic, we’ve been able to secure major grants from the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative, the IUCN Save our Species Fund and the International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC). RSPB and WWT have also provided significant funding and we appreciate the many, many donations we have received from WWT and RSPB members, plus birding groups worldwide.

This funding has allowed us to work with, and provide vital support to, many organisations in the countries along the spoonie flyway: Russia, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The long term survival of spoonies ultimately depends on the right conservation action being taken in these countries

For more information, visit: www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com

Leica kit used by WWT for spoon-billed sandpiper project:

Leica X-U (Typ 113) camera
RRP: £2,770
Leica V-Lux 4 (Typ 114) camera
RRP: £940
Leica Ultravid 10x32 HD binoculars
RRP: £899
Leica Ultravid 10x42 HD-Plus binoculars
RRP: £1,870
Leica APO-Televid 82 Angled spotting scope with 25:50x wide field eyepiece
RRP: £2,810

For more information, visit: uk.leica-camera.com/Sport-Optics/Leica-Birding